Huskies are one step from history
UConn must beat two top-15 teams this week to set the record
The Associated Press
STORRS, Conn. -- Great isn't good enough for Geno Auriemma, and no one on his UConn women's basketball team is too gifted to get better.
Woe to any player who thinks differently.
For Auriemma, the bar always gets set a notch higher.
``It's never what they think it's going to be. It's never as easy as they think it's going to be,'' he said. ``Nor should it be.''
Top-ranked UConn, with its seven national titles and four perfect seasons, is one step from basketball history: the 88-game winning streak set by John Wooden's UCLA men's team from 1971-74.
The Huskies, who have not lost since April 6, 2008, in the NCAA tournament semifinals, can catch the Bruins when they play No. 11 Ohio State at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. Then they would go for the record against No. 15 Florida State on Tuesday.
``You almost have no way of answering the questions anymore about how the whole thing comes to be,'' Auriemma said during a recent interview in his office, where the walls are covered with pictures of his former players, and a display cabinet next to his desk is filled with trophies and mementoes. ``We're fortunate. We've got kids that work really, really hard at what we ask them to do. They love the coaching, they love the challenge. They like the pushing, the prodding.
``At least,'' he added, ``they act like they do.''
He says it with a hint of glee in his voice, a smirk playing across his face. Auriemma can be charming and affable, and his quips make him a media favorite. But he knows there are people who think he's a jerk.
He may have spent the last 26 years in Connecticut, but he remains a Philly guy to the core. He's sarcastic and has no edit button, saying whatever is on his mind no matter who it might offend or how it will be perceived - a trait that may have played a part in his cool relationships with Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and UConn men's coach Jim Calhoun. Try as he might, he can't help but sprinkle his conversations with cuss words.
He is attentive to even the smallest detail, almost obsessively so. He doesn't like his players to wear headphones while traveling because he doesn't want them blocking out the world. He doesn't like them to be distracted during the national anthem, so they line up shortest to tallest, identical in their shorts and long-sleeved shirts, standing ramrod straight with legs apart and hands behind their backs.
On the sidelines, he rants and raves, even while his Huskies are in the midst of yet another rout. He finds flaws - lots of them - and takes almost perverse pleasure in pointing them out.
Asked what her team could take away from its recent 32-point loss to Connecticut, Marquette coach Terri Mitchell said: ``When we tell you to do the little things in practice, THIS is the difference between being good and being great. Those little things are the difference.''
And he drives them. Oh, does he drive them. Games of seven-on-five in practice. Forcing them to play against bigger, stronger male students he's rounded up on campus. Endless drills to hone skills players thought they had mastered in junior high.
``The way they practice is the way they play. That's why they're the best team in the country,'' former Huskies center Kara Wolters said. ``He does not accept walking. He does not accept not talking. You run to the end of the line, you sprint like it is a privilege to be on the basketball court every day.
``It doesn't matter that they have five freshmen; they're playing Connecticut basketball. They practice that hard every day, and Geno expects that from the first person off the bench to the last person off the bench,'' said Wolters, who played on UConn's 1995 NCAA title team and was national player of the year two years later. ``If you can survive and beat Geno mentally in practice every day, games are easy.''
After all, iron doesn't become steel without being exposed to blistering heat.
``It is amazing to me that not only he's able to do it, but that nobody else has,'' said Jennifer Rizzotti, the point guard on the '95 title team who is now a coach herself at Hartford. ``There's a lot of good players out there, and I wonder sometimes when I watch how hard his teams play what are other coaches that have those caliber players not doing that they can't get their kids to play as hard as he does?
``I know I'll probably (tick) a lot of coaches off by saying that. But certainly I find that challenge,'' Rizzotti said. ``It is amazing to me that he can continue to get that message across and no matter which kids he brings in, almost all of them - not all of 'em because there's always one or two that don't end up buying in - but almost all of them completely buy in to the way he does things and the way the program works. They just keep getting better.''
Auriemma and his family immigrated from Italy when he was 7, settling outside Philadelphia in Norristown, Pa. He played basketball and baseball growing up, and got his first coaching job right out of college as an assistant at St. Joseph's. After two years there and two years at his old high school, Bishop Kenrick, Auriemma joined Debbie Ryan's staff at Virginia.
Five years later, in 1985, UConn hired him as its head coach.
``They were playing in an antiquated field house with very little facilities, no tradition or reputation for the program, and were not competitive in the conference at that time,'' Connecticut athletic director Jeff Hathaway said. ``He came with a vision and came with an idea - I'm sure somewhere in there was a dream of what could be - and set off.''
Now not only is UConn the pre-eminent name in women's basketball, but the marquee team at a school where the men are perennially ranked in the Top 25 and have won a national title. While the school proudly displays the accomplishments of both squads along the walls of Gampel Pavilion, they are tilted heavily to Auriemma's players - NCAA tournament appearances every year since 1989 and 11 Final Fours.
Sure, Auriemma has his pick of the best players in the land. Maya Moore, who recently set UConn's all-time scoring record, was a two-time high school All-American. Lorin Dixon played on the top prep team in the country two years running. Bria Hartley and fellow freshman Stefanie Dolson were on the U.S. Under-18 team.
His former players are a veritable Who's Who of college basketball: Diana Taurasi, Rebecca Lobo, Nykesha Sales, Rizzotti, Wolters, Swin Cash, Sue Bird, Tina Charles.
``The great ones are hoping, and praying in some ways, that it's hard as hell. They want it to be like that. And then they'll go, 'Man, this is why I came here,''' Auriemma said. ``And then because it's hard for them to break into the lineup because you have so many good players, the expectation level, the demands of all the things that go with playing in this program, every day they walk around with these incredible expectations. They can't just go, 'I don't feel like it today.'''
UConn lost three starters from the team that was undefeated for two straight seasons, including Charles, the national player of the year. (Caroline Doty, a junior, is out for the year after tearing her ACL.) In addition to Hartley and Dolson, the Huskies start another freshman, Samarie Walker, who averages 20 minutes a game and is the team's leading rebounder.
Auriemma doesn't exactly baby his young squad.
Its second game was against No. 2 Baylor, and before New Year's Eve there's No. 3 Stanford, Ohio State and Florida State.
Yet the UConn juggernaut rolls on, the newcomers every bit as relentless as the all-star cast. The Huskies have won their first nine games, beating everyone except Baylor by 20 or more points.
``We have something special here - it just happens to be a little extra special these last two years - and we want to protect that,'' Moore said. ``We want to protect our season. We want to protect our program and what we stand for and how hard we work. We have to make sure we do that every day.''
And just as he does with his own two daughters, Auriemma refuses to go easy on his players because they're ``girls.''
Asked at last year's Final Four how he deals with it all - the usual player issues and, yes, PMS - he cracked, ``Wine helps. Helps tremendously.''
``If I have one advantage, it's I grew up in an environment, from the time I was born to today (where) I don't know any weak-minded or weak-willed or wimpy women,'' Auriemma said. ``And so for me, I never looked at my players like, 'Poor them. ... Nice try, sweetheart, we'll get it next time.'
``The biggest disservice ever done to women's sports is accepting the fact that they're girls and they can't do certain things that guys can do. Why? Why? What? You admitting right off the bat that she's not good enough?''' Auriemma asked, his voice rising. ``What am I doing? Water torture? Waterboarding? What am I doing to these guys? I'm going to practice and I'm saying, 'Look, I want you to get from here to here and I want you to do it as quickly as possible. I want you to go from here to there. I want you to get here to there and I want you to put this right there, that pass.' And then when they don't do it, I get really (ticked).''
For all of Auriemma's bluster and theatrics, his players, past and present, adore him.
He may be hard on them on the court, but they know he's a big, old softy away from it. He gets birthday reminders on his BlackBerry and will send a text message to a player. Ask him about a former pupil and he can rattle off not only UConn highlights, but what she's doing now. When Rizzotti's team, in the midst of a tough season, lost another game, she got a text from Auriemma telling her to hang in there.
When players come back - they do on a regular basis; Bird was at practice last week - they're welcome to crash at the Auriemma home with Coach and wife Kathy. Taurasi may have given Auriemma more fits than all his players combined, yet she wrote the forward to his book, ``Geno: In Pursuit of Perfection.'' And something else: Hers is the only player portrait hanging in the Auriemma Reading Room at the UConn library.
``He's like a father to me and I'll always love him,'' Wolters said. ``That's why there are so many former players around the program. If you couldn't stand him and he was mean to us like some people think, so many of us wouldn't still be around.''
As UConn closes in on 88, the debate about how - or whether - the Huskies should be compared to those fabled UCLA teams grows louder. (TV host Bryant Gumbel might want to rethink future trips here after grousing about the comparisons to Wooden's UCLA squads, which won 10 national titles in 12 years, including seven in a row.)
Worth considering, however: UConn has beaten 16 top-10 teams during its streak, four more than UCLA did during its run. UConn is 281-3 against unranked opponents dating to 1999. That means the Huskies win games they're supposed to win, rarely getting tripped up by overconfidence, fatigue or other factors.
``How he can keep his team at the level he does is almost unreal. I respect him way more for that than his championships,'' Michigan State men's coach Tom Izzo said. ``He doesn't have letdowns. If he's supposed to beat a team by 20, he beats them by 30. There are few programs that can do that. We're not one of them. I don't know many that are, but he sure has done that, and that I have total respect for.''
UCLA and UConn cannot help but be inextricably linked. But that is as far as Auriemma and the Huskies want to go. UCLA's record may be surpassed, but its achievement will never be supplanted. The games are too different, the eras too far apart.
``I like to appreciate what they did for what they did and what we're doing in our special way,'' Moore said. ``I don't think you have to say one's better than the other.''
Besides, no number, no matter how big, is enough to define what Auriemma and UConn have achieved - just as No. 88 alone cannot convey the essence of Wooden and his UCLA squads.
``The only thing I would say, the only thing I would ever say, is we're the only ones in the position to be able to do something that everybody thinks is pretty significant. No one else can,'' Auriemma said. ``No one else has, and no one else can right now. But we've put ourselves in that position. So now that we're here, we have no choice but to just get it done. That's it. We have no other choice. We can't pretend it doesn't exist. We can't say, 'Well, I'd rather it not happen. It's just another game.'
``Based on what everybody's saying, it's not just another game. So now that we're here, let's win.''